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Leaves Decay Faster in Warmer Temperatures, Scientists Say

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 10 -- A mathematical model for decay rates in leaves could help lead to better predictions for climate change, scientists report.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team created the mathematical model after they analyzed data from forests and ecosystems across North America and found general trends in decay rates among all leaves.

The findings show that all plant matter decays faster as temperatures increase, according to the study in the Sept. 7 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The researchers said it may be possible to use the mathematical model to predict the turnover times of various ecosystems, which may help improve climate change models.

"It's a really messy problem," Daniel Rothman, a professor of geophysics in the department of Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, said in an MIT news release. "It's as messy as the pile of leaves in your backyard. You would think that each pile of leaves is different, depending on which tree it's from, where the pile is in your backyard and what the climate is like. What we're showing is that there's a mathematical sense in which all of these piles of leaves behave in the same way."

During spring and summer, leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into organic carbon compounds. Carbon dioxide is the main climate change gas produced by human sources such as cars and industry.

After they fall off trees in autumn, leaves decompose and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Natural decay contributes more than 90 percent of the yearly carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere and oceans, according to the MIT news release.

Knowing the rate at which leaves decay could help scientists predict the yearly global fluctuation of carbon dioxide and develop better models for climate change, the researchers suggest.

More information

The World Health Organization explains how climate change affects health.

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Posted: October 2012